“Just me here, Mom. Aunt Marian and Uncle Hunter went to do some errands.”
“How are things going for you?”
“School’s fine. Church is fine. It’s just . . . other stuff.”
“Things keep going wrong.”
“What do you mean by things?”
“Well for one thing, not everyone here is nice.”
“You will find that everywhere you go. And you’re away from—”
“I know, I know.”
“Uh . . . you still on the line, Farrah?”
“Sure I am.”
“You just got quiet there all a sudden. What’s bothering you, honey?”
“It just feels like I made the wrong choice staying the second semester here. I wish I left after the first one ended.”
“I thought you said you liked it in Grantville.”
“I said I liked my classes. I never said I really liked it around here. This doesn’t feel like the place for me.”
“Remember a school year doesn’t last forever. School doesn’t last forever, even if it seems like it right now. It’s just preparation for the next step.”
“Well, whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing with my life, I sure haven’t found it yet.”
Farrah Nisbet still felt apprehensive walking through the main entrance of the high school. She could still picture the damage the raiders had done.
And she didn’t much like being in crowds. Nothing wrong with the crowds themselves. She just didn’t like getting bumped into. Nor did she like it when her surroundings got too loud for comfort. But that came with high school. Though she could pick up more and more of the German words, she still struggled with conversation.
She liked visually interesting stuff, which happened to include unusual attire and distinctive hairstyles. Sure saw a lot of that in this unfamiliar era, especially at school. Of course, being caught staring at someone got her into some downright awkward situations. Usually that someone was a down-timer. Yet she wasn’t very good at putting names to faces, or at getting names completely correct. Yet everyone seemed to know hers more or less. Or otherwise remember her. And she stuck out all kinds of ways. Small wonder Farrah felt like she lived in a fish bowl. Or a crowded aquarium.
Not that her first name didn’t cause problems. It had never helped before when it lent itself to awkward questions about her background and origins. When it wasn’t setting her up to be made fun of. Aside from that, it caused confusion: she had been called Sarah or Vera more times than she could count. Still much, much better than getting called certain things.
She had never truly fit in anywhere , at any time—least of all in a Grantville mysteriously transferred to the seventeenth century. And she never knew when she was going to pull some cultural or social blunder next. Plus people like her seemed to come across as unusual—or interesting—enough without her existence conveniently proving the point.
Her main concern these days was keeping busy with schoolwork. She never needed any kind of academic help. Her grades were good, or at least passable. Though she did get distracted by innocuous things, or stray thoughts got her mind wandering.
Hopefully she would do fine as long as she stayed out of the principal’s office. Not to mention the counselor’s office. Speaking of which . . . .
She saw Principal Saluzzo look at her intently from the school office doorway. He had been a counselor before last fall. Farrah tried to push aside the memory of one very terrible day as she headed towards her locker.
The counseling thing had never helped much over the years, no matter how many times school counselors had pulled her into the office. The counselors generally seemed nice enough in person, but none of them really seemed to understand her. She didn’t much enjoy the discussions or appreciate the guilt-trips about not sharing all the expected perspectives. Like why she did not socialize more. Or why she got upset easily by stuff she was expected to ignore. Or the pointed hints about her maturity level. Like something was deeply wrong with her.
Farrah’s attention was drawn by a zipper sound coming near her ears, followed by the sound of all her books banging to the floor right by her heels. “Heey-ee!” she found herself shouting.
Two of the Sanabria boys laughed as they started tossing stuff around. They seemed to like playing catch with her things. That or keep-away. Although this had been the first time they had ambushed her away from her locker. Taking things out of her backpack while she was still wearing it, that was a new low.
Farrah automatically grabbed a fallen folder and smacked her nearest assailant with it—face, arms, shoulders, anywhere she could hit.
“Ooh!” the second bully called out. “You’re in trouble now, Fahrenheit! We’re telling the principal.” Both ran down the hall.
She hadn’t gotten herself into trouble, had she? Yes, she was mad, but it wasn’t like she was losing control of herself, right?
Sure enough other kids were watching, including some scattered up-timers. There was the Spanish teacher’s daughter, Muriel . . . no, wait, Mariel. And Mrs. Penzey’s kid, um, what’s-her-name. This was just great.
“It’s not like they’re about to get you in trouble over that,” she heard someone say to her. “They would have to tell on themselves.” Farrah turned and stared in bewilderment, trying to identify the semi-familiar speaker. Darren or Dylan maybe? Or was she thinking of someone else altogether? He held out one of her textbooks which she reached out to take. She noticed other students picking up stray items. “You can’t let them get to you. Ignore them,” the kid told her.
“ ’Cause people look the other way?” she declared as she snatched her book back. “Picked that up, thank you very much!” Almost immediately, he turned around and started to walk away. She noticed him shaking his head before giving a shrug.
“Thanks!” she called after him, with more bite than intended. “Really.” She hoped that had come out more softly. She did not wait to see if there was a response before starting to take stock of the aftermath.
Dustin Bolender hadn’t been looking the other way. He had gone ahead and intervened.
But if this was the thanks he was going to get, why had he bothered? And how come she looked at him like that?
Didn’t matter, he decided as he headed to homeroom. He had other things to worry about.
Farrah mentally took inventory as she reloaded her books and other materials. She took a close look at the backpack and noticed the zipper on the main and front compartments extended all the way down the sides. That explained why everything fell out of it so easily. Maybe she should do something about the stupid thing. A way to lock it? There might be a spare bike lock in the back shed she could use.
There was chuckling off in the background somewhere. Was she being laughed at?
This was exactly why she did not automatically trust people.
Farrah carried her lunch tray away from the serving line. “Farrah! Come and eat with us,” she heard a familiar voice rise above the multi-lingual chatter in the cafeteria. Sure enough, she was being beckoned over to an almost-full table. Farrah had intended to eat by herself but saw no way to duck out gracefully. Keeping to herself seemed to be easiest way to protect against feeling rejected. Still she felt grateful for the invite.
Wynette was some sort of cousin-by-marriage; cousin Leland was married to a sister of Wynette’s father Monroe Wilson—who happened to be a custodian at this school. She was sitting by Bill Warren who was from another branch of that family. Farrah saw their families at church a lot too. Wynette was brunette and Bill was dark-haired. Farrah did not know either of their eye colors—nor that of most people she was acquainted with, truth to say.
Farrah started on her lunch without thinking about blessing it first—that sort of thing apparently looked weird anyway. Vegetable-noodle soup, bread, cheese, sausage, salted fish, sauerkraut cake with honey, plus cups filled with cider. Not too bad even if pretty predictable.
Cool air blew past her face. The antique-styled replacement windows put in last fall weren’t very weatherproof. As if she needed a reminder that things were different now. Sure got more scenery change than she bargained for coming here, there, whatever. She never should have stayed out that first school year here—not with how things were turning out to begin with. She didn’t want to think about what her reputation at school or around town might be like these days. One nice thing was most people had learned to watch their language around her. Everyone else she could usually avoid.
Practically everyone was aware of her LDS background. Farrah was never sure if she was being looked down on because of that. In this day and age, they were definitely a religious minority. There was a small handful at the high school. She, Wynette, and Bill had this lunch shift. Wynette’s brother Nolan ate at a different time. Brother Wilson worked here, as did Sister Thornton who was an English teacher. Hektor Lobitz who stayed with the Thornton family was also attending with them often.
Farrah got startled when something hard tapped the side of her head. “Oh. Didn’t see you there.” The unwelcome voice made Farrah cringe. Caryn Barlow, she thought the name was. Farrah inched closer to the table before turning around. Sure enough, Caryn was standing there holding a tray.
“What are you looking at, moron?” Farrah’s mouth gaped open. Had she just been called that? Just because she happened to have a certain religion did not make it a license to make fun of her. She was sick and tired of getting picked on day after day.
Wynette spoke up. “What is your problem, Caryn? Just leave her be, please.”
“Try making me.” Then came other things Farrah would never want to repeat in a million eons. Right after what happened this morning. Un-believable.
Farrah looked around. A few teachers were present in the room, but they were there to eat rather than supervise. And the closest one was more than ten yards away. Not that adults were inclined to do anything. No one was.
She heard Wynette talking to her, “She’s not actually doing anything.” Easy for her to say maybe; Farrah could feel something take effect inside of her. “It’s just words.” But words weren’t meaningless, not where she was concerned. “You could just ig—”
Farrah stood and faced her latest tormentor. “O-oh boy!” Wynette said under her breath.
O-oh boy was right! Caryn was about eight inches taller and it seemed about a hundred pounds heavier.
Farrah found herself at a loss for words. Caryn must have too, but that might not last long. Farrah glanced surreptitiously at the table. She picked up her soup bowl and held it in front of her.
Suddenly, she realized no one around her was saying anything at all. The room got noticeably quieter, until a single voice called out, “Food fight! Food fight!” Others quickly joined in.
“Just walk away, Caryn,” said Wynette. “Walk away.”
Farrah felt surrounded by the noise of chanting and stamping feet. O-oh, boy! This sooo wasn’t the result she was going for!
Pure pandemonium broke out.
“I never wanted this to happen!” protested Farrah Nisbet.
Victor Saluzzo looked around at this. Only a few tables had been affected before things petered out. Nothing seemed to have hit the ceiling. Cleaning lights would have been interesting. The windows looked unscathed. Pieces of food and spills of liquid were scattered on tables, chairs, and floor. As a whole it did not look near as bad as it might have been. Still there were remnants of broken plate or two. Maybe ceramic dishes weren’t such a good idea.
Most of the mess ended up on students, including a number of down-timers. Crumbs stuck on Farrah’s light brown hair. Her oversized sweater had several spots, including a mushroom slice which he couldn’t recall being part of the menu. People must be really bored. Caryn had bits of spaetzle noodle in her strawberry blonde ponytail. Somehow he didn’t think that was a fashion statement.
When he had first walked in here, it didn’t take long to narrow down instigators. Lots of fingers had been pointed at Farrah Nisbet. Other directions also, but mostly towards her. “Someone else threw things first,” Farrah was saying. “Before I did.”
“Who?” he asked. But she just shook her head and looked down, like she was starting to pull into her own private shell.
He wondered if she had some kind of guilt complex. On top of that, she never did seem quite the same after the Ring of Fire separated her from her own family. Her parents and siblings lived out of town, and the uncle she was staying with never made it back in either. Farrah lived at her aunt’s house, as did two German girls who boarded there. Her remaining biological family was pretty much assorted cousins. There were relatives by marriage, including Owen Maddox who taught at the middle school and was part of the ESOL program there. Owen might have pulled some strings getting her placed as an ESOL aide. She also seemed to have been shaken up by the attack on the school last fall. They all were, so no surprise there either. Farrah had assured him that she was talking to someone about dealing with that. The someone she talked to must have been helpful because she seemed slightly less withdrawn than before.
Victor Saluzzo was a guidance counselor first and foremost. He had never planned on inheriting responsibility over the whole school. He wondered how Ed Piazza and Len Trout would have handled this. Compared to marauders and everything else that had come at them, a food fight was nothing. Still, he could not just let it slide. Then a stunt like this would have been a big headache. Now it was a waste they could ill-afford. Either way, it was a major disruption.
“The place has to be ready for the next group in, oh, about twenty minutes.” The cafeteria served multiple shifts of students, as well as people who frequented the library and the tech center. “We’ll need people to help the janitors with cleaning this up.” He saw Farrah shaking her head as she looked over the scene. “Pick up what you can, and the rest will be mopped up.” He focused his attention on the students in the immediate vicinity. “I also think some food service duty is in order for some of you right here.”
Farrah began to look nervous. “Just don’t put me in with her.” She pointed over her shoulder towards Caryn who in turn was staring daggers back at her. “She was bothering me to begin with.”
This was new information. He turned to address Caryn. “How come?”
“Religion,” mumbled Farrah. He swept a look over the gathered group to head off any wave of chuckles before returning his gaze to Caryn. She only shrugged. Victor sighed inwardly. Religion. Why was he not surprised?
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that those two did not like each other. Both girls were to graduate in a few weeks; surely they could be kept from going at each other until then. Besides, making them work together would probably constitute cruel and unusual for everyone around them.
“I’m going to start calling up your parents too. Or whoever you are staying with.”
Now Caryn looked apprehensive. “Are you telling my dad?”
Victor caught her eye and shook his head slightly. Her parents were divorced, and if she saw no need for her father to be told, he would go with that. She, her sister, and her mother had come for a visit that long-ago day, and had been in town ever since. She definitely seemed none too happy about that.
He heard something getting wheeled in. “Let’s get this mess cleaned up.”
“Food fights in the lunch room now. I wonder what will happen next.”
Farrah really was not looking forward to that response. She kept hearing grumbling all afternoon about kids these days and about those crazy young up-timers with their even crazier traditions. Classmates didn’t seem very happy with her either, especially those from this era. Pretty much because of what happened to perfectly good food or what happened to people’s clothes. Farrah didn’t like the whole idea either.
She was able to wash off her hair in one of the bathroom sinks at school. She tried to clean off her clothes the best she could, but needed to wait to get a completely clean change that did not smell like fish and stuff. She now wore sweats. Farrah hoped she hadn’t gotten something ruined today.
“Let’s see what it looks like when it comes out,” Aunt Marian said as she put the top down on the washing machine.
Farrah had only got one wild shot in—not with the bowl itself, but the contents. The fact that she was the first to grab something and had actually thrown it, albeit belatedly, must have been enough to get her written up. That aside, she was too busy ducking to really see what was happening. Still she got pelted pretty good. She wondered how much had been aimed directly at her and how much was completely random. The whole thing must have only lasted a few minutes although it had seemed much longer.
She and some of the others had their first stint of cafeteria duty right after school, which was to last two weeks for everybody. At least she didn’t have to deal with Caryn who was in the before-school group. Staying after was going to preclude her usual after-school routine at the middle school. She also missed her usual bus, so Monroe Wilson offered to drop her off along with a couple others who lived nearby. She almost backed out of accepting. She doubted he was very pleased with her after that whole mess. And she was too nervous to ask him straight out.
Farrah had missed part of her class right after lunch, which put a damper on getting schoolwork done. And lunch getting cut short meant she came home famished. She stuffed down some leftovers already, but was still feeling very, very irritable from the whole thing. Yeah, there went her day.
“I still don’t understand what happened today.”
Let me explain it, Farrah thought. “Someone started picking on me. Again,” she said aloud. “I just wanted her to back off.”
“So you threw something at her?” asked Aunt Marian in disbelief.
“I didn’t throw anything right away.”
“You snuck up on her later and—?”
“No! It wasn’t like that at all.” Although Farrah could see how the whole crazy scenario could be confusing. “She knew I had something. I never ‘snuck up’ or anything. I didn’t know someone was going to think it w—”
“You mean someone got you into this one? Is that what happened?”
Farrah tossed up her hands in frustration. Yes and no, she wanted to say. But that would only add to the confusion. She seemed to be good at that sort of thing—not exactly something a person was supposed to be good at.
“And you were doing so well too.”
Farrah got tense. Apparently she had messed up badly yet again. Why did everyone assume she was out to cause problems? Here it comes: the part where she got told about what she was doing wrong. Her pride hurt too much to let herself consider any other interpretations.
“Now what did I say?” asked Marian.
Farrah did not want to go through the are-you-trying-to-get-in-trouble discussion. Which usually came with the why-do-you-keep-losing-your-temper discussion. That particular issue had been gone over disturbingly often in the past, and the now-in-the-future past. What kind of self-respec—?
She couldn’t take any more. “ ’Course I keep getting things wrong. ‘Cause everyone just waits for me to screw something up, then jumps on me once I do!” She stomped toward the front door.
“Wha—Where are you going?” asked Marian.
“Walk!” Farrah called back as she grabbed her coat.
She didn’t slam the door as she went out—it was left wide open. She half-walked, half-ran into the darkness outside.
Farrah was not interested in looking at the trees or stars or landscape this time. She was more concerned with getting somewhere she could cry in private.
She could recall some not-so-fun conversations since getting stranded here and now:
Like anyone is going to take someone like me seriously. . . . I wish everyone would make up their minds on what I’m supposed to do. . . . I don’t belong around here, remember? I never belonged. . . . It doesn’t even matter what I do. It’ll never be good enough.
You certainly have a way with people, she was once told. And what way is that? she had asked in reply. It isn’t funny! I really don’t understand.
And there were even-more-painful memories from her childhood, back in the modern era:
For being so bright, you seem dense. . . . Why don’t you pay attention to things?
Might have guessed you were one of those. . . . You’re a what?
Farrah still remembered being called names. Crybaby. Weirdo. Many, many others. But the most common theme that came up: Look out! Here comes Fahrenheit.
Why’d you have to call me that? her younger self still cried out. At least I wouldn’t be Fahrenheit! Or Thermometer!
As she crunched through a snow patch, those terrible instances continued to rush into recollection:
You’re just being sensitive. . . . You can’t expect life to be fair. . . . It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t go ballistic so easily. . . . You’re an easy target for teasing. . . . Stop acting like you got your feelings hurt.
That last one always made her cry.
As Farrah looked around the small hollow, she felt like the biggest failure there ever was. And she was unsure which idea was worse: that everything that had gone wrong with her life had been all her fault, or that she might not have been in control of things.
Her thoughts went to a more self-destructive vein: had she been out of everyone’s lives a long time ago, none of this—none of a lot of things—would have ever happened.
And once again, something got awoken deep inside of her. Don’t, came an urge within her. You already know better than this.
She understood all right. Had for a long time. She was fully aware of the cost, and realized she could not really allow herself to resort to that. Still, a part of her wished she had rethought this whole matter a long time ago. It sure would have made things much simpler by this point in mixed time. It wasn’t like many people would have missed her long-term. Things could have been over with, back bef—
Don’t. Please, that inner force spoke up with gentle insistence. You do not want that. There is still something better.
She fully realized she could have fought to ignore that, but truly did not want to. Which was a large part of why nothing had ever gone any further.
There was no denying that she would have missed out on enjoyable things too. And she could feel a dim inkling in back of her mind that there would be some kind of negative ripple effect.
And when it came right down to it, there was never any . . . anything she was willing to force herself to go through with. Way too painful. Or too . . . She hastily backed away from that disturbing territory.
Still, she did not understand how much good she was, if she was just going to keep getting things messed up along the way. And what was she even doing here here?
Long-hidden memories emerged from the recesses of her mind. Things she heard her dad say during earlier parts of her life:
Everyone has things they are good at and, yes, things they will struggle with. But that’s what life is all about—growth. And learning from experiences. . . . Each person you encounter is going to have their own way of approaching things, handling things. . . . Not everyone came with the exact same set of talents and skills.
All right already, she got the hint. But what kind of useful or redeeming qualities was she was supposed to have, exactly?
But there had to be something there, right? For the sake of her peace of mind, there needed to be. But what could it possibly be in her case?
Cold started soaking through her clothing. She needed to get inside, and soon. Farrah never did very well with cold air. And now she was living in the Little Ice Age. What an irony. Also it would make for a really stupid way t—
Farrah got to her feet and started walking toward home. She considered what homework assignments she would need to do first. She expected she would have to be up extra late in order to catch up.
That was when an unexpected and unwelcome thought grated at her: finding the creek nearby and just happening to—
She pushed that away; she did not need specifics coming to mind too. Farrah could guess where that strain of thought was really coming from, and why. She kept going straight ahead like nothing had registered.
She reached the road and started to walk alongside, keeping well away . . . for obvious reasons. There was not much traffic anyway, especially not in this now, getting this late. Still she heard one vehicle pass. Then a second. And then a passing pickup slowed and stopped.
She tensed momentarily, until she recognized the markings on the side. And the license plate was familiar. She should know that truck; it had been parked by the church enough times. The driver-side window slowly cranked down.
“Farrah!” That was Howard Carstairs—Brother Carstairs to her. “Need a ride?”
She nodded eagerly and approached the paved road.
He must have gotten a good look at her tear-streaked face. “Something wrong?”
“So how was your day?” Howard Carstairs asked his young visitor later.
Both were seated in his living room. A dishwasher sounded off in the background. He had already called her aunt, much to Marian’s relief. He too was glad he had found her—to think he almost hadn’t seen her earlier. His wife Liz was doing something work-related in the den, and the kids were off doing homework.
“Eventful,” Farrah Nisbet replied glumly. She seemed dry-eyed for the moment, though her eyes looked red and puffy. And judging by her flickering gaze, she must have found something very interesting about the faded wallpaper behind him.
“In what way?”
“Things at school went more or less how they usually do. Until lunch.”
“What happened at lunch?”
There was a weary sigh. “Food fight.”
This he had to hear. “Really?”
“Yeah.” She frowned, then slowly went on, “I sort of, kind of, got it started. I didn’t mean to. It’s just . . . Well, somebody did something. Then I did. And before I knew it”—she swept a hand through the air—”whoosh!”
Howard smiled despite himself at that last part since it sounded all too familiar. He could only imagine what people at school must have thought—not to mention parents. And clearly none of this was very funny to her.
“It looks like there’s something on your mind,” he found himself saying. “Does it have something to do with today?”
“Almost. I don’t like how things get screwed up with me around. Like I still can never figure out how to get things right. You know what that’s been like.” She looked lost in thought momentarily. “I’m not really sure if I can find anything about me to even like or be proud of.”
The way she said all that sent a chill through him. He tread carefully with the next question. “Are you considering doing harm to yourself at all?” he asked quietly.
Farrah squirmed in the seat across from him. Howard feared she was about to get on the defensive this time. But she only stared down at the not-used-for-coffee table. Or maybe she wasn’t really looking at anything. She looked both ashamed and miserable.
“That’s . . . occurred to me,” she said reluctantly. A thick silence fell between them before she resumed nervously, “Oh, I wasn’t about to actu—uh . . . I couldn’t. Really. I . . . I understand that’s . . . how it’s wrong and everything. It’s just—” She inhaled sharply. “—come up so many times.”
He waited to see if there would be more, but nothing else seemed forthcoming. “When?” he enquired.
She seemed to gather her thoughts before uttering them aloud. “There were some times when I would struggle with it for a while, then and now. And then there would be . . . oh, several months, even a few years, when I’d be completely fine there. Until . . .” She didn’t finish with that, but it was clear what she was getting at.
“How old were you?” he asked with increasing concern. “When this all started?”
“The very first time, I was . . . nine.” Howard felt his jaw drop. “Then the next time it happened, I would have been, um, twelve. It was off and on after that.”
Howard was stunned. That young, and already thinking this way? A youth was supposed to be able to enjoy life, enjoy growing up.
The whole idea of anyone feeling so miserable and contemplating the unthinkable was deeply disturbing as it was. But a young child, not yet in her teens, experiencing all that? He scarcely knew such a thing was even possible. And yet it had begun at such a tender age. What could have led to something like this?
Her face had turned beet-red. “This, uh, isn’t something I’ve really talked about,” Farrah said sheepishly. “The last time I even mentioned it at all was back in the 90s.”
He was not all that surprised that she felt down on herself. The suicidal thoughts didn’t much surprise him either, although he had hoped it wasn’t the case. He wondered from time to time, but never felt the need to ask straight out before—he suspected she would have become defensive. But he never would have guessed it had been going on nearly that long. And chances were he was the first and only person within this universe to know about it.
Farrah began blinking, as if her eyes had started to water. Howard opened the door on the side table next to him and got a tissue box ready for her. That stash came in handy enough times the last couple of years. A wastebasket sat nearby, as always.
This situation was much more delicate than he ever suspected. He did not want to say or do something wrong. Not now. Not after whatever she must have gone through to get to this point.
Howard Carstairs wondered yet again what he had gotten himself into. He felt completely out of his element with something like this.
“I think this one calls for a word of prayer.” That was half for her benefit, and half for his. “I’ll give it.” He would not remember later what he said, aside from a mention of “perspective and understanding.”
“All right now,” he told Farrah afterwards. “Why don’t you explain your concerns? And don’t worry,” he added reassuringly, “we can take all the time in the world.”
At least he got a shrug.
Later that evening, Howard was still reviewing what he had been able to learn from the visit.
Farrah gradually opened up with some details about her recent life and her earlier life, as she decided what she wanted to share and how to put it. She would hardly have done that only a few months ago. Still, there were some things she did not bring herself to share—whether those were too hurtful, or too embarrassing. Still he thought he got a feel for what had been going on.
She made some rather interesting, and stunning, comments. Like not being sure whether she was supposed to blame herself or factors beyond her control. Not being certain how she was supposed to go about making friends. Wondering when she would get rejected next, or find herself getting manipulated. And feeling she had been left to fend for herself and not doing a very good job at it.
Howard had no real training in mental health. He was much more familiar with theology, largely by self-study. Still, he understood that spiritual matters had bearing on mental well-being. He used that perspective as he imparted counsel and advice. And reassurance. That she had something good and useful to offer. That she—her whole life, her entire existence—was of consequence. That the Creator, their own Maker, would not have lost track of or forgotten about someone—even with any sort of cosmic shuffling. Howard really hoped something he said was sinking in.
Still, not an expert with mental health in and of itself.
So how come something about this sounded almost familiar?
When Farrah entered the school the next day, she carried her backpack in her arms rather than risk leaving it on. She had entered through a back hallway; she was familiar with all the low-traffic areas. She did not wish to run into any janitorial staff, or food service staff, or much of anyone.
The halls weren’t completely deserted though. Still, she was completely taken off-guard when someone put an arm around her shoulders. Farrah did not naturally take to being touched, though she could make herself put up with it in social settings—with people she knew. This was something else altogether. She froze right in her tracks.
“There you are,” someone said. “Getting that food fight going yesterday. That was pure genius. We haven’t had that much fun since you-know-when.”
Did she hear what she thought she heard? Farrah looked around and spotted two guys along with the one who had stopped her. She did not see the kid she yelled at yesterday—maybe she scared him off. This was not really the reception she was expecting at all. “Um,” she began, “I wasn’t trying to st—”
“Don’t worry, it was pretty funny. Even a few of the teachers thought so.” Huh? Was that possible?
“John and Bill Sanabria were really laughing about it,” stated a second voice, this one with an accent. “But you never got that from me.”
That secret was sure safe with her: she had no idea who ‘me’ was!
“Did you see the look on Caryn’s face?” the third kid asked laughingly.
Farrah hadn’t paid any attention actually.
“You should have seen yours. You looked like you wanted to deck her.” Had she now? Part of her had been afraid of that.
“Maybe you’re cool after all,” said the first one. “If you ever wanted to, ya know, sit with us . . . or something. Keep it in mind.” She waited until they walked off before letting herself relax.
He said maybe. Like he still wasn’t so sure about her. Not many people were, not in the long run.
Did anyone even know or care why there was a food fight in the first place? And just how was she expected to handle herself anyway? Farrah sighed. This could be a very long day.
Howard Carstairs had started with a half-remembered conversation. Not that there was much of it to remember.
But the more he recalled of it, the more he hoped—desperately—and prayed—literally—that he truly was on the right track.
He could not logically rule anything in or out, based on what little he already knew. Looking beyond logic, the idea taking form made an ironic kind of sense. If, if it in fact applied to the situation at hand.
Howard had been unable to concentrate on work all morning. His thoughts kept drifting the same direction: he had wanted answers. Why keep wondering, when there was a likely possibility staring him right in the face? Why try to rationalize it away again?
The fact was he had a likely possibility, no matter how much of a long-shot it looked like on the surface of it. Now what was he going to do about it?
He knew he would need to follow up somehow. He just hoped he wouldn’t be the only person who would know what he was talking about.
Howard was about to look up the number for the Grantville Research Center . . . only to hesitate.
He considered what the reason for that might be. He did not know how they did things, but he figured there was some sort of research backlog. He did not want to make Farrah wait for answers. That was probably it. She needed results sooner rather than later. She had already suffered over a lifetime—more than long enough for anyone. True, she had gotten herself to hold on as long as she had. But what if something finally managed to push her over the edge? And with something this sensitive, maybe the GRC would not prove the best route for him to go.
So who to go to then? He briefly considered one possibility, then another, before settling on someone he hoped would know something. Or would know of someone who knew something.
The person he called finally came to the phone.
“Maybe you can help me with something,” said Howard after a short exchange. “You see, there’s something I was really hoping you were familiar with.”
“Oh-kay,” came the reply.
A couple days later, Owen Maddox watched as his young cousin-in-law opened her front door.
“Unc—Cousin Owen,” Farrah said. He did not want her calling him Uncle, though that still slipped out sometimes. It was perfectly understandable, what with the two-decade age difference between them.
Owen paid very close attention to her eye movements. The green-eyed gaze briefly drifted right to his line-of-sight but did not lock on. He had been skeptical at first, but now he felt much more confident about the theory he had run down.
Her expression showed uncertainty, like she was wondering what she was expected to say or do next. She finally extended a hand toward Owen, which forced him to hastily switch the notebook he was carrying to his other hand.
Owen recognized she wasn’t a touchy-feely person, yet she seemed perfectly comfortable with shaking hands. Handshakes might have been a Mormon thing. He didn’t know for sure, not being one himself.
“Hello there! How are you today?” Howard Carstairs greeted her as he extended his own hand.
“Doing okay now,” she answered.
Farrah stood aside to let both of them come through the door.
After all had sat down in the living room, Howard started the discussion for them. “I’m so glad we could have a visit on such short notice,” he said. “Now we’ll explain why we’re here.”
Farrah could not begin to guess what to expect from her visitors.
“There’s something I wanted you to hear about from the two of us,” Brother Carstairs said to her. “After I talked to you last time, I remembered something that got me—the both of us—looking into something. Turns out there is a very little-known neurologic condition, called ‘Asperger’s Syndrome.’ There is still another term for it.” He addressed Owen, “High Autism, was it?”
“High-Functioning Autism,” Owen replied.
“There’s another kind!?” Farrah asked in surprise.
“Apparently so,” Howard Carstairs said. “One with more selective effects.”
Farrah never expected to hear anything like this, but she was intrigued. Especially by why they would be talking about whatever-it-was with her.
“First off,” she heard Owen say, “you seem to have trouble making eye contact with people.”
With a start, she realized he was right! That very moment, she’d been focusing on the sofa armrest beside Owen. Making eye contact had never been natural to her, no matter how many times her mom might remind her. And whenever Farrah focused on someone’s eyes, it was only for up to a few seconds at a time. It always took conscious effort, and eventually tapered off—if she even remembered in the first place. When she tried doing it this time, she found it no easier than it would have been just the minute before.
Why was that? What did it have to do with anything? Just what was going on here?
Owen evidently saw her confusion. “I’m not a shrink either, but the more I looked at this myself, the more it seemed to fit you. It sure helps explain a lot of things. Basically, the aspects of mental functioning having to do with intellect and cognition are more or less intact—high-functioning if you will. But there’s another type of functioning that handles social skills, interactions with people—in whatever form it might be. You’re left at a disadvantage when it comes to handling those. And that can make things complicated real fast. Which you likely found out the hard way.”
This sure was a lot for her to take in all at once!
“It can show up a variety of ways. A range of possible characteristics can appear to varying degrees. Over time, someone might learn to compensate for some of those, largely by trial and error. Like you seem to have done. So the signs can be hard to spot in the first place.
“Or they get misattributed as something else—like willfulness, or stubbornness. They might get blamed on character flaws, or how someone was raised. In reality, it has something to do with how the brain was wired.”
They went over some things in nitty-gritty detail.
About how and why she got confused easily by group situations. And did not automatically understand what to expect from others, and in turn what was expected of her. In short, that she did not pick up on things the way other people could.
That she had a hard time with understanding the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of others. Or with interpreting someone’s intentions accurately.
That she seemed to struggle with naturally handling her side of conversations. And often had trouble following other people’s line of thinking, and expressing her own thoughts so that those made sense to others and weren’t misconstrued.
“There’s also a tendency to interpret things literally,” explained Owen. “That isn’t very obvious with you for the most part. I wasn’t sure it applied at first. Then I remembered this one time, you overheard me say something colorful—I’m not about to repeat it—and you went, ‘That’s a religious term?’ I just assumed you were trying to be funny. That, or get on my nerves a little. Or—Anyway, now I see it as a reflection of how you think about things.”
They went on to the fact that she didn’t automatically pay attention to facial expressions or other non-verbal cues. And that led to the realization that she seemed to focus less on faces and more on hair and clothing, which made it difficult for her to recognize individuals later on or in differing settings.
Over the years, she had found herself hoping she wasn’t some kind of freak of nature. Maybe she really was, but at least she understood why she felt like one.
“I wish we could say we already know everything you—or anyone—will ever need to know about this, but we have a start. We had to piece things together. Still are,” said Owen.
“But you were able to find something about this?” she enquired with interest.
“So far, an entry in the DSM—uh, sorry, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.” Farrah wasn’t sure what those were supposed to be. “A reference book,” Owen amended. “Then I got hold of one that talked about this specifically. We also ran a few things by—”
“Wait!” she broke in. “You talked to people? About me?”
“There are people who might need to know that something like this exists,” Owen explained. “It doesn’t need to be common knowledge just who might have it. And I would still be wondering about some things if I didn’t have anyone to go to.”
“Oh, I wasn’t concerned about that,” said Farrah. Although she wouldn’t enjoy it if she got run through the local rumor mill, again. She just wanted to get something confirmed. She glanced toward Howard. “You, uh, didn’t say anything . . . ?” She trailed off, not wanting to complete that particular question in front of an audience.
But he got the point right off. “Anything confidential or sensitive, you mean?” the other supplied. “Not a word.”
“I may have clued in a few people at your school,” Owen stated. “Victor Saluzzo was especially understanding about this.” Farrah felt a wave of guilt. To think she had been avoiding Principal Saluzzo like a plague. “Not that you’re off the hook.”
“I hope it doesn’t look like we were going behind your back, Farrah. I debated bringing you in on this,” said Brother Carstairs, “but it seemed more important to have something concrete to share with you first.
“Speaking of sharing, you do have valid concerns. I understand all this is really personal for you. That’s why I’m not going to divulge anything to anyone until and unless I have your okay first. Though at the very least, we should get your family up to speed, so they understand what’s going on. That all right with you?”
She nodded her assent without hesitation.
“Also, you should realize there are some very good people out there who would be willing to help you deal with this. You don’t have to keep handling everything all by yourself.”
Owen spoke up. “If you’re interested, I can arrange counseling for you. With anyone you choose.” Farrah was not so sure about this idea; she did not enjoy getting criticism. He might have read something in her expression. “Bad experience, huh? Sorry to hear that. Hopefully, knowing about what really goes on in your head would help make that more effective for you going forward.
“Also, there are some skills that people can help you learn. Interpersonal skills, stress management techniques, among other things. It would give you some tools to help you cope with situations. That way you can have control over your own life.”
Farrah pondered over what this new knowledge meant for her.
“Farrah?” asked Brother Carstairs. “What do you think?”
“Well,” she wondered aloud, “the type of person this makes me? M-my having this?”
“This does not in and of itself make you anything. You choose what kind of person you want to become. You are still you, Farrah. Always have been. Always will. It’s your heart that matters. Remember that,” he told her. “But, I’m not going to deny that this would affect how a person perceives things and have an influence on their actions that way. It has been affecting you your whole life, and will continue to do so.”
There was a thoughtful pause. “I don’t get the impression you were being willfully disobedient, if that is what you are concerned about here. And it’s safe to say the Lord knows already what’s been going on, and surely He can take in account the full nature of a situation.
“This isn’t your fault,” he added gently. “You didn’t know.” His voice took on a far-away quality. “No one did.”
Howard Carstairs saw her at the church building. An hour early, no less. Farrah was flipping through a hymn book. She seemed the most relaxed he had ever seen her. She grinned as soon as she caught sight of him.
“How’s everything going?” he asked her.
“Good,” she responded. “Thanks for telling me about the . . . what was this thing called again?”
She sounded that out quietly. “How’d it get called that?” she queried. “And how did you find out about it?”
“I’m sure you recall that I was stationed in Germany for a few years, once upon a time. I heard a little bit over there. A Doctor Hans Asperger studied intellectually gifted children who had difficulties handling social situations, shall we say. He worked in the last century. Well, make that before you were born. He would have been in Vienna . . . from the 1930s and 40s onward.” He watched as the implications sunk in. “You probably remember what was happening during that time.”
“The World War II Era?” she asked in awe. It was not surprising she would see that particular connection, considering she seemed to have already brushed up on that portion of history a long future-time ago.
“And some decades after that. For whatever reasons, this particular category of research did not become as widely known as it could have been.” Farrah looked very troubled. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to spring this stuff on her, but she was going to find that out eventually. “Your condition not being well-known made it that much easier for you to fall through the cracks; no one knew what to look for and it can be hard to spot. And I’m sure being in the dark about all this couldn’t have been much fun for you.”
Farrah nodded grimly. “So what finally gave it away?” she asked. “That this was what I had?”
“Well, I knew just enough about it to know that it existed, and had been studied. I never knew in detail how it would show up in someone.”
Howard paused for thought. “Still, there were things you said that started me on the right track. Like how you feel very ill-at-ease socially. Also, you went into some long-term unpleasant memories you’ve never been able to shrug off or fully forget about.” He caught himself before letting something slip out. She knew full well what was being referred to. Plus, there were a few people further down the hall. “It was as if those got ingrained in your head, and you had no idea how to get them out.
“It was a matter of how much I did or did not know,” he went on. “To me, it was just something interesting I heard. It wasn’t occurring to me that it was directly relevant to your situation.”
Howard was grateful that having this resolved for her hadn’t been delayed any longer. Did it need to take her opening up like she did last week in order to get everything figured out? Truth be told, scattered recollections had been popping up infrequently for months, when he wasn’t preoccupied. He could start telling himself that it happened to be triggered by this event, or that set of circumstances. But he suspected he had been supposed to, meant to, remember. Instead, he sat on what little he knew, because he was too distracted to follow up.
He started to wonder how many others had missed to chance to help her figure this out because they misconstrued things.
With chagrin, he realized he had no need to speculate; it was out of his hands.
He had dropped the ball too. It wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of effort to start the needed inquiries.
He realized he did not want to fail someone else by not paying attention. Not understanding.
“Now I have one question for you,” he said.
She looked at him, more or less.
“Can you ever forgive me for being clueless?”
She nodded vigorously, then stood up and hugged him.
He was so caught off-guard it took him a few seconds to return the gesture.
“Thank you!” she said semi-quietly.